AIB shows you don’t need to go to Saudi Arabia to see sportswashing in action

Despite a record fine for its role in the tracker mortgage scandal, AIB is still a cherished sponsor of the GAA

Let’s try a little thought experiment to begin. Imagine Paddy Power was in the news for being hit with a record fine. The offence in this imaginary scenario is a build-up of thousands of breaches of contract with its customers in a scandal that spanned a full 18 years of business. In fact, let’s not pick on Paddy Power specifically – let’s make it the entire bookmaking industry, banged to rights on a combined 57 different regulatory breaches that had affected 41,000 customer accounts. It wouldn’t be a great look.

Okay, let’s leave the bookies alone on this one. Just this once, they can take the moral high ground.

How about we hang the charges around the neck of the drinks industry instead? Come on down Diageo and friends. Let’s say – and again, before the lawyers get twitchy, this is merely idle hypothesising – let’s say Guinness were found culpable for 53 of their customers losing properties, 13 of which were family homes. Or that once the scandal was uncovered and even after they had admitted responsibility, they still delayed redress action to make it up to some of the customers they had wronged, leaving them years without compensation.

Yes, yes, okay. You can put down the red pen, m’learned friends. The drinks industry has nothing to do with this. Clean as a whistle on this one.

Ah, what the hell. Let’s go nuclear altogether. For the sake of this argument, let’s make it the Saudis. In this scenario, it’s Mohammed bin Salman and the Public Investment Fund who have fallen foul of the authorities and have admitted to dozens of cases of “failing to act honestly, fairly and professionally in the best interests of its customers”.

Imagine this wasn’t the Saudis’ first rodeo either and that the size of the record fine was, in part, down to the fact that it had been the subject of four previous enforcements from the regulator. Or that when it was all handed down, their official public response was a statement that ran to only 59 words.

Eighteen years, close to €600 million in refunds, compensation and legal fees and all they have to say for themselves is a measly 59 words. Imagine the Saudis behaving like that. Or Paddy Power. Or Guinness. Or whoever.

Now imagine them sponsoring the All-Ireland championships, as Allied Irish Banks do.

Last month, the bill came due for AIB for their role in the industry-wide tracker mortgage scandal. The actual fine imposed by the Central Bank is €119 million but there’s an inbuilt 30 per cent discount on it for early resolution and so the number that will ultimately go to the exchequer is €83 million.

All of which means that one of the GAA’s headline sponsors is on the hook for the biggest ever fine imposed by the Central Bank for anything ever. When you consider that the Irish banking industry has, to put it delicately, been no stranger to scandals and breaches and fines down through the decades, that takes some doing.

For context, that is €45 million more than the previous record, handed down to Ulster Bank last year, also for their part in the tracker scandal. A fine that size isn’t handed down for a bit of colouring outside the lines. This wasn’t some over-eager junior staffer getting carried away and greasing a few punters on the way up the ladder. This was a monumental assault by AIB on its customers, one that lasted almost two decades and for which not a single AIB employee or executive has ever been found responsible.

Given all that, it’s reasonable to ponder why the GAA continues to see them as such an attractive bedfellow. Any other industry that housed such a shower of delinquents would surely have sporting bodies running as fast as possible in the opposite direction by this stage. But look around you and regardless of your sport, banks are everywhere.

The GAA has AIB, Bank of Ireland are hard-wired into provincial rugby and domestic soccer. Ulster Bank have left the scene now but they hung in there with their sponsorship of the All-Ireland League right up to the end. All these banks, the self-same institutions who bankrupted the country just over a decade ago and ravaged communities throughout the tracker scandal, they’ve all stayed in their various partnerships without any suggestion that their behaviour might imperil the arrangements.

There’s a double-standard here, which the GAA has found itself in the middle of – albeit through laudable intent. Whereas other sporting bodies have less of an issue with entering into partnerships with bookies and drinks companies, the GAA has long since decided to turn away from sponsorship that promotes alcohol or gambling. They feel a societal responsibility, a protectiveness towards their members. Sneer at that if you will but it’s genuinely held and dutifully followed.

And yet, when it comes to AIB, whose actions resulted in financial disaster up to and including the loss of family homes, there appears to be no issue. The record fine was handed down on Wednesday, June 22nd. The following weekend, the football quarter-finals were held in Croke Park – eight counties from every corner of the island pouring over 120,000 paying guests into GAA headquarters. Flick through the match programmes on both days you find 10 mentions of AIB or uses of their logo – including on the front cover, on all team lineout pages and a full-page ad on the inside cover. The price of doing business.

So what’s to be done about all this? Probably nothing, if we’re all very honest about it. AIB are no pariah here. We may argue that they ought to be but that’s a different day’s work. Partly it’s because regardless of their actions, they’re seen as respectable in a way bookies and drink vendors never will be. Partly – and counterintuitively – it’s because people are a bit inured to banking scandals at this stage.

But mostly, it’s because AIB’s sponsorship of the GAA is a success. They’ve supported the club championships since the early-90s. They’re one of the six title sponsors of the All-Ireland. They’ve hooked up with the camogie championships too. They’ve made it worth everyone’s while, not just financially but in terms of engagement too.

They’ve thrown themselves into making behind-the-scenes videos with the Tailteann Cup, with club players and county players in all sorts of scenarios. They’ve got hashtags going and social media campaigns pumping. You won’t be able to move for the next few months of the club championships with being bombarded with #TheToughest and all the rest of it. The Real Ireland, packaged up and sold to you by a bank that spent 18 years swindling the people who live in it.

You don’t have to go to Saudi Arabia to see sportswashing in action.

Malachy Clerkin

Malachy Clerkin

Malachy Clerkin is a sports writer with The Irish Times